Put A Stamp On It: Politics of Postage
The story of stamps, according to the History Channel, is the story of America. If this were a multiple choice quiz, you might have chewed your pencil over jazz, automobile assembly and racial intolerance before arriving at thirty-nine cent peel’n’sticks. But illustrator Steve Buchanan insists that you can’t just stick anything on an envelope.
In one of the lectures in a series called “Options: Commercial Applications in the Visual Arts,” Conservatory graduate Steve Buchanan, OC ’71, gave studio art majors and stamp-collecting enthusiasts a very detailed rundown of the stamp production process. He explained how he made the transition from being a professor of classical piano to illustrating tropical plants and discussed how even the smallest things in America’s government are fraught with chaotic bureaucracy.
Young-Hunter Professor of Art John Pearson, who organized the series, introduced Buchanan’s lecture with a comment that “most Oberlin students are elitist” and disdain the thought of working on anything but fine art. Buchanan, though, is not a disappointed studio art major; he never dreamt of becoming an artist, he said, and his academic piano career lasted 11 years before he began to illustrate.
As a prelude to the lecture, Buchanan showed clips from a documentary about stamp-design, in which he was featured. The history of postage stamp-making in America, like any official government business that wants to remain respectable and uncontroversial, is full of hushed-up mistakes and controversies. For instance, due to technical ignorance of the mechanics involved, the first stamp to feature the Wright brothers’ newly patented airplane printed the image upside down.
Buchanan stressed that this sort of inaccuracy is not tolerated in stamp design. Every beetle and motorcycle must be outfitted with the appropriate number of sclerites and exhaust pipes so as not to anger the furiously lobbying biologists and collectors. Buchanan recalled getting especially nervous when designing the “Carnivorous Plant” stamp series. He had designed a stamp that featured a flytrap gobbling a butterfly, when flytraps can only digest gnats.
“Entimologists have been after the Postal Service for years,” he said.
Special-interest groups are not the only folks who put pressure on a designer of stamps. Every design must go through a maze of approval committees, advisory experts, the Postmaster General and perhaps their mothers before the stamp makes it onto the envelope containing your grad-school application. Buchanan, though, has not been co-opted by the system. A veteran of the harshness of university bureaucracy, he remains cynical about the value of stamp production’s multi-tiered approval system.
“It’s really astonishing that America ever has any new postage stamps,” he said.